Fresh Out of Dope
While suffering from withdrawal symptoms, a drug addict hits herself around the face with a book. Tony O’Neill does not tell us the title, but a copy of his new novel — in which this harrowing scene appears — would be appropriate. Down and Out on Murder Mile is the sequel to Digging the Vein (2006), the novel which established its young author as a figurehead of the “Offbeat” literary movement, alongside the more experimental Tom McCarthy. Unlike McCarthy, whose novels subvert the idea of authenticity, O’Neill belongs to the authentic school of writing as exemplified by Charles Bukowski and John Fante. To his admirers, he is a combination of Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady (or André Breton and Jacques Vaché), a resolution in himself of the art/life dichotomy.
Although Down and Out on Murder Mile is subtitled “A novel” and described by its publisher as “semi-autobiographical fiction”, O’Neill makes no bones about how closely it is based on his own history so that one wonders what, if anything, is fictitious about it. In the acknowledgements, for instance, he thanks his “wife and muse” — whose name in fiction, as in fact, is Vanessa — because she does not object to his “airing [their] dirty laundry in public”. The first-person narrator remains anonymous throughout, making him indistinguishable from the author, and the systematic use of the past tense (except for dialogue) reinforces the biographical feel.
Far from being a simple memoir, however, Down and Out on Murder Mile is a deceptively literary work, one which chronicles its own genesis. When the protagonist describes the mental games he once played to provide himself with “a perfect excuse for a little hit”, he takes a dig at the glamorization of junkie writers: “Did William Burroughs sit around, worrying about taking dope? Or did he just do it and then write immortal books?”. At times, heroin stands for the magic potion found in the traditional love story; at others, it brings about the obligatory mating of Eros and Thanatos: the “unspoken agreement” that the junkie couple will “eventually die together”. The fairy-tale qualities of the narrator’s romance with Vanessa are striking, especially in the squalid circumstances in which it takes place. Contact is first made when he drunkenly speed-dials a number at random on someone else’s mobile phone. Vanessa falls for him when he is at his “lowest ebb”, his “worst point”, his “most destroyed, destitute and bankrupted”, and she sees through all that as if he were a prince in disguise. The fatal attraction of dope is depicted in the novel as the result of a childlike rejection of compromise and mediocrity: “I start to realize that the war on drugs is a war on beauty — a war on perfection, because everything is perfect on heroin”. Addiction is thus an attempt to give permanence to the “lightning crack of divinity” glimpsed at when shooting up. Epiphanies like these are better served by writing than by heroin; and this is the concealed theme of a novel ostensibly concerned with the day-to-day survival of an addict.
The opening sentence hits an almost comically low note: “The first time I met Susan she overdosed on a combination of Valium and Ecstasy at a friend’s birthday party at a Motel 6 on Hollywood Boulevard”. The two soon get married and live unhappily ever after until they relocate to Murder Mile in East London, where the narrator is saved in extremis by unconditional love. A late chapter, entitled “Adulthood”, closes in true coming-of-age fashion: “And I know now, I need to grow up”. This is indeed a Bildungsroman but it is also a Künstlerroman — a portrait of the artist as a young junkie. O’Neill never mentions his first novel, which he wrote while on the methadone programme described here, but its composition haunts the book like a character in search of an author.